There have been better college basketball conferences than the 2019-20 Big East, whether you want to define that strength as the presence of superstar talent, the abundance of quality teams or a concentration of contenders for national honors.
There was a time, in 1982-83, when Michael Jordan, Len Bias, Johnny Dawkins and Ralph Sampson patrolled the ACC all at once, and N.C. State won the national championship behind Dereck Whittenburg and Thurl Bailey. The Big Ten of 1993-94 featured Glenn Robinson, Shawn Respert, Deon Thomas, Alan Henderson and 80 percent of the Fab Five, including Jalen Rose and Juwan Howard.
The Big East itself advanced three teams to the 1985 Final Four, with such legends as Patrick Ewing and Chris Mullin involved and Villanova stealing the show with its improbable “Perfect Game.” The Big East also set records by placing 11 teams in the 2011 NCAA Tournament and 77.8 percent of its membership — seven teams out of nine — in the 1991 edition of March Madness.
One can peruse all that college basketball history, though — even revel in it for a while — and never encounter a conference as deep as the current Big East: 10 teams, none of which stink.
“This is an extremely unique year,” Villanova coach Jay Wright told Sporting News. “I don’t even know who’s in 10th place right now, but I can guarantee whoever is in 10th probably has a great chance to be an NCAA Tournament team based on how they’ve done this year.”
Wright is correct. St. John’s has started 0-3 in league play, but has posted nonconference victories over West Virginia (No. 11 in the NET) and Arizona (No. 13).
“We saw it in nonconference play, and I think it’s carried over to the conference play,” Red Storm coach Mike Anderson said. “Here we’re sitting 0-3 (in conference), and we’re not that far off. You’ve got to have short-term memory in the wins and in the losses. You’ve got to be ready every night. We’re seeing right now, we’re kind of beating up on each other. Hopefully it continues, and it puts us in position to have many, many teams in postseason play.”
It’s not that the Big East is loaded with powerhouses: Only No. 6 Butler is ranked in the top 15 of the current Associated Press poll, and No. 16 Villanova is the only other team included in the top 25. Only No. 6 Butler, No. 14 Seton Hall and No. 21 Villanova are mentioned near the top of the KenPom.com ratings, and it’s close to the same deal in the NCAA’s NET rankings.
Seton Hall guard Myles Powell and Marquette guard Markus Howard are the two obvious All-America candidates, although Butler guard Kamar Baldwin is outstanding, as well.
What’s different about this Big East is the dearth of dregs. And no, that doesn’t mean DePaul withdrew from the conference. The Blue Demons have had only one winning season in the past dozen years, but that was last year. They’ve built upon that 19-17 mark with an 11-3 start that includes a road win at Iowa and subsequent victories over Minnesota and Texas Tech.
Every team in the Big East has double-digit victories. Only one has more than five losses. All are at least four games over .500. All rank between No. 4 (Butler) and No. 81 (Providence) in the NET and between No. 6 (Butler) and No. 81 (St. John’s) in the KenPom ratings.
This season’s Big Ten has more high-quality teams — 12 of its 14 members are ranked in the NET top 53, which is another impressive story. But two of its members also are ranked 148 and lower in the NET and below 100 in KenPom.
The difference between this and the Big East’s three prior peak years is simple and obvious: depth.
In 1985, the year of the record three Final Four teams, Providence went 3-13 in league play; Seton Hall went 1-15, recording a single victory over a major-conference opponent (against Connecticut, in the teams' Big East finale).
In 1991, when the Big East placed seven of its nine teams in the field and nearly got eight, ninth-place Boston College lost 15 of its 16 conference games by an average of 9.9 points. In 2011, the year of 11 bids, the bottom four teams won between one and five Big East games — and most of those were against one another.
It’s that lack of “cooperation” that separates the Big East this season. It appears no one has agreed to be bad.
Wright mentioned that the current iteration of the Big East has had seasons when it placed six members into the NCAA Tournament field (2015, '18). There also was one with seven, in 2017. He added he’d like to see this Big East break the record for percentage of teams. That would mean getting eight into the field.
That might be difficult, because while there are no “bad losses” to be had in Big East play, it’s that much more challenging to stack up quality wins. For that to happen, the Big East probably can’t afford a great deal of separation between the team that finishes third and the one that winds up in eight place. Which would make the Big East race — and the Big East Tournament at Madison Square Garden from March 11-14 — all the more compelling.
“That would be incredible,” Wright said. “And I think we’ve got a shot to do it.”